Song Writing

Davey Ray Moor of CousteauX (Formerly Cousteau)

by Jeff Suwak

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In 2001, London's Cousteau strutted and slinked into the American musical landscape with their eponymous debut album and the single "The Last Good Day of the Year." The song landed them an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. Looking back at the performance now, one sees a band with great stage presence and talent, seemingly set on a clear trajectory towards the Big Time.

The thing is, the Big Time was never really Cousteau's target. At least, not if getting there meant giving up their own vision. The band's singer, Liam McKahey, summed up their attitude thusly: "The day we try to write a hit single is the day we're gonna split up." This commitment to artistic integrity gave Cousteau the freedom to make timeless-sounding tunes bearing the influences of Nick Cave, Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, and David Bowie. In hindsight, their fate seemed more directed towards building a Tom Waits-style cult following than in milking generic pop stardom.

That fate was derailed, however, when Davey Ray Moor, one of the band's main creative forces, left to pursue a career making solo music and producing for other artists. His split was driven largely by a rift with McKahey, which based on this interview, has been patched up. For all the work that Moor has done outside of Cousteau, he seems to feel his own artistic path is entwined with McKahey's.

Well, as they say, it's "better late than never," and after a 15-year recording hiatus, Cousteau is back, now as CousteauX (the X is silent) because of a legal squabble with the Jacques Cousteau Society. Their new album, CousteauX, was released in September 2017. Once again, rather than chasing the latest trends and fancies, the band has gone in pursuit of a more timeless sound, picking right back up where they left off.

In interviewing high-minded artists such as Davey Ray Moor, there's always the fear of finding a temperamental iconoclast whose disdain for the mainstream listening public is matched only by his disdain for music journalism. Gladly, with Moor, that wasn't the case. His answers were thoughtful and forthcoming, revealing an engaging Brit who takes his art very seriously – but not himself.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Congratulations on the CousteauX release. How's it feel to be recording under that old moniker again?

Davey Ray Moor: Thanks very much. The real thrill about this new adventure is that a three-way circuit gets to reconnect. I start the proceedings by delivering my songs to Liam. The second stage commences when Liam wraps his voice around my songs, and then it completes when it connects with that host of people who hear our peculiar sound and have a deep connection.

So while that spark happens when the voice hits the tune, it's nothing without the fuel of an audience hearing it. Otherwise it's just a pretty tree falling in a forest. Working as a reconfigured Cousteau allows us to signal to our audience that there's now more of the stuff they loved, and it's over here with an "X" on it!Songfacts: You asked fans to think of the "X" as a "kiss and a scar." Intriguing contrast of images. What exactly made you think of that, and why is it significant to this new iteration of the band?

Davey: Cousteaux is another French family name, and so we no longer resemble the other French family name that we used to resemble. We had five members when we were in our heyday, and so we honor them by declaring this as a reboot. The "kiss and a scar" metaphor pretty much defines the dark-and-light, bitter-sweet, masculine-feminine coils at the core of what we do.

Songfacts: Was it strange at all to not have the former members playing?

Davey: Reducing down to just the basics of songs and voice is something that allows us to survive. So many of music's great bands have been duos, and slimming right down to the essential communicative parts also allowed us to approach each song in a manner defined by the song itself. Think of how every Simon & Garfunkel song sounds different. So this time around we were able to sculpt productions a whole lot more, and bring in some of our favorite musicians where appropriate.

Songfacts: There are some great lyrics on the new album. Is writing lyrics any easier or harder for you than the music? What usually comes first?

Davey: Lately I've been writing a lot more title-first songs; they are the easiest because everything falls into place in alignment with that title phrase. But for the most part I start by "finger fishing" (Sting's phrase - I like that) around an instrument. The piano or guitar then yields a sequence or a shape that defines that mood. The music indicates the kind of idea required in order to embed into the music's feeling with transparency. So words and music can get into a bit of a dance as they form, often enriched by phrases and ideas stored away in notebooks.

Songfacts: You've done production work for other artists over the course of your career. Do you enjoy that any more or less than writing and performing your own stuff?

Davey: I like making CousteauX music more than anything else. Liam and I have such a great time making our songs and we've got a ton we have yet to record.

There's a moment when we play newly recorded CousteauX music to ourselves - loud and through big studio monitors - that is the best feeling I've ever experienced. I don't get that with anything else, and I don't have time for any distractions now that CousteauX is back in the world. However, if we ever have the time, I'd like to produce for Liam the type of solo Tex-Mex/Americana sound he has pursued since the end of Cousteau.

Songfacts: Discussing your split from McKahey, you said you were "one singer-songwriter in the bodies of two people." How does that work? How does your songwriting process go? Are there are any particularly areas where one of your songwriting strengths compensates for the other's weaknesses?

Davey: Liam McKahey is one of the world's great voices and he possesses an authentic character. That's a dream companion for a songwriter and producer. I've spent my life writing songs and refining a style, and I can take care of all the recording and instrumentation.

So we've got a guy who has spent his life acquiring a voice steeped in technique and character, and another who did the same with his writing voice. It's a rare and special balance, distributed evenly across two people. I think it could be lonely and less fun being a solo artist, so we're kind of lucky like that.

Songfacts: It's interesting to me that your reunion was inspired by Searching for Sugar Man. Have you guys thought of trying to collaborate or do a show with Sixto Rodriguez?

Davey: Liam and I had a messy divorce and a long cold war. It thawed when I forwarded news of Searching to Liam. Rodriguez was the soundtrack to Cousteau's early rehearsal holidays from reality, and there is a wise, grooving positivity to his music. It always baffled us that he wasn't widely loved outside of the Southern Hemisphere. Rodriguez opened up a way for Liam and I to reconnect. Some things are so pure they make old squabbles irrelevant.

Songfacts: Is there any particular song on the new album that you're especially proud of? Or one that means something more to you than the others?

Davey: I particularly like playing "Memory Is A Weapon" and I enjoy the way it binds a lot of what makes CousteauX special into an evocative few minutes.

Songfacts: Did you have the Sugarcubes' "Fucking in Rhythm and Sorrow" in mind when you made "Fucking in Joy and Sorrow"? Is there some connection?

Davey: No, I didn't, and I'm slightly shocked to know it exists. Our title is something that came to me in a dream; an old girlfriend asked me whether I'd read this book called Fucking in Joy and Sorrow. In the dream I remember thinking what a cool book that must be. So on awaking I searched around for that book title and couldn't find it, and thought it would make a good song. Much to my relief the Sugarcubes' song is suitably bizarre and ours is achingly soft.

But hands up, I must have read, or misread, or somehow absorbed Bjork's song to have it be so similar in my unconscious mind. Bjork and I share the same birthday, so maybe that's the cosmic link.

Songfacts: Telepathy was such a terrific album and was so well received. I'm curious as to why you didn't release more solo material.

Davey: Hey, thanks for that, I'm jazzed that you heard it. Ace. I love that album and adore all the singers who worked with me on making it. However, it was really a bunch of songs written for Liam to sing for a 2004 Cousteau album that never happened. Knowing what I know now, it's a whole lot different when Liam climbs inside my songs and makes them his. In that moment something extraordinary and larger-than-life happens. Solo albums for me are just a collection of beautiful songs. CousteauX is that and a whole lot more. Also, at that time I had gotten a day job which kept me distracted from songwriting for a while.

Songfacts: In an old interview, McKahey said, "The day we try to write a hit single is the day we're gonna split up." Had that statement been portentous? Did that subject feed at all in your split back in the day?

Davey: Well, I guess you're right. Maybe it was some Faustian utterance that cast us into obscurity for the hubristic sins of pride!

However, in all honesty, it probably would've been a good idea to put "The Last Good Day of the Year" on a laboratory table, and then dissect and clone its bits into similar constructions. That's probably what Joe Public would have wanted. But any songwriter will tell you that it's much better if a song comes into life on its own accord - as a thing that wanted to be made. That's what I thought back then, and I kind of considered it a little phony to write "The Next Good Day of The Following Year." Maybe we should have teamed up with a calendar publisher and just kept rolling them out.

Liam and I split because that's what people who come together through passion and belief often do, but it didn't have anything to do with singles or hit singles. For some reason we had to split, and that's OK because now we've had to un-split.

Songfacts: What's "BURMA" about? Any particular inspiration?

Davey: I heard on BBC Radio about a craze that swept the British Forces in World War II. Essentially, soldiers and pilots would write various anagrams on the backs of letters home to their sweethearts. Some of these were earnest, some lurid, some daft. The most popular was "BURMA," which stood for "Be Up There Ready My Angel." This struck me as a song opportunity in which the "upstairs" was either the marital bedroom or the afterlife.

These were letters coming from young men, facing the fact they might die or be injured soon. So, in a way, it's a true story based on a soldier's dream of coming home.

Songfacts: "The Innermost Light" has a dark, kind of tortured feel to it. What inspired that one?

Davey: "The Innermost Light" was written with Carl Barât from The Libertines. He turned up for a songwriting session with that phrase. Carl borrowed it from a tattoo on his manager's arm that quoted Aleister Crowley, the Edwardian occultist of Led Zeppelin renown. Crowley used "The Innermost Light" as a term to describe what others might call "the soul," or the inner spark of light that is our thoughts. Carl and I worked around ideas of light, and the quest for the innermost light in the eyes of a soulmate.

Songfacts: I've read that you found your way to music partly through David Bowie, and I couldn't help but hear (or imagine I heard) that influence in "Seasons of You." Do you think that's a fair assessment, or am I just hallucinating?

Davey: Liam's voice carries reminders of Bowie's voice (among others) despite Liam's unmistakable personal stamp. I think we're all patchwork recreations of the things we've loved in music. Musicians can hardly help this. These influences spring out in the most unusual places, so maybe you're right. Although I reckon "Thin Red Lines" is the most Bowie-like song on this album.

Songfacts: Was Sally in "Sally Say You Will" an actual person named Sally, or just a convenient name?

Davey: Fantastic question. Sally is actually the name of my wife and the mother of my daughter. So it's unusually biographical, that one! It helps that Sally is probably the most sung-about women's name in music history. Maybe that's what attracted me to her - the promise of a good song title. Better not let her read this article... Damn.

Songfacts: What exactly is meant by a "Portobello" serenade? What's the song about?

Davey: A serenade is a song floating through the outdoors. I recall the experience of walking home through Portobello Road as the sun comes up on a London summer's morning, with young lovers walking home from a night out, headed for the comforts of bed and sleep. Haunting jazz wafted out onto the street and I felt solitary and alone like a Hopper painting, yet not lonely or sad. Melancholy can be both bitter and sweet, and this song is a way to describe that frequency.

Songfacts: You went from a kid learning music while asthma kept you indoors to the Crystal Set '83 and all the way to today, 2017, with CousteauX. That's a rather remarkably long career. As you look back over that long landscape of years, are there are any particular highlights that jump out at you? Anything you feel particularly grateful for, or proud of?

Davey: Now that you mention it, that is a long time. The answer here is that I am proudest of the Cousteau and CousteaX albums, and of some of the live shows we did when we were at our peak. This music I do with Liam is the thing I love the most, and I think I can speak for him in matching that.

Songfacts: In the same vein as the last question, is there anything you are particularly excited to create or experience in the future? Is there any dream project that you've got mind?

Davey: It would be a dream project to get CousteauX out into the world so that we can keep on making music. People love it dearly, and Liam and I love listening to it also, so that's the perfect blend of sweeteners for me. That's enough - I don't really want to do anything but CousteauX.

Songfacts: Is this new album a signal of more continued material to come from CousteauX?

Davey: You bet. We've just written the second album that we're rolling out next year. Watch this space!

Songfacts: Do you have anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

Davey: Warning: CousteauX is sleazy listening on the melancholy tip made by a couple of dangerous and desperate men. Approach with caution! This music may make you cry.

October 19, 2017. More at cousteaux.com.
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